6 Ways Not To Be An Asshole At The Grocery Store

Do you choose to be a good person, or do you choose chaos?

Back in 2020, a tweet went viral positing a "shopping cart theory" of morality. It's a tidy assessment of humanity based on whether a person makes the choice to return a shopping cart to its rightful place after they're done using it. The author of the now deleted tweet considered this to be "the ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing... the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it."

The image in the tweet is a play on the popular trolley problem meme. The trolley problem thought experiment asks whether a person should passively allow five people on the tracks to die from being hit by a trolley, or actively divert the trolley in order to kill only one person on the adjacent track (who would have otherwise been safe). 

My first exposure to the trolley problem was in the season two episode of The Good Place that shares its name. Ostensibly a comedy, The Good Place was interesting in its first season before morphing into a self-serious and needlessly confusing mess. If I could, I'd divert the trolley to kill the version of me who watched The Good Place, thereby freeing five other hypothetical Jons to go explore the world, learn new languages, and watch other television.

But the Shopping Cart Theory is more mundane. No fast-moving trolley, no death. Just a loose shopping cart, a cart corral off in the distance, and the intoxicating idea that you can stand on moral high ground if you return the cart to its proper place.

I'm not sure many people would stand on a soapbox to declare that we should all refuse to return our carts. But there are some worthwhile reasons to not return a cart—like not wanting to leave a small child alone in the car or feeling unsafe alone in a parking lot at night—and these make it harder to consider the Shopping Cart Theory an incontrovertible indication of a person's character.

Still, we should try, when we can, to make other people's lives easier. It's the same as returning your tray at a food court or dumping out your cup of backwash and ice at the coffee shop. Cleaning up after ourselves is the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, the shopping cart corral is just one location where we decide to be our best or worst selves. Here are all the ways we can actively choose not to be assholes at the grocery store.

Hang up your phone while shopping

Some cities have enacted laws that forbid using a phone while driving. These laws make sense; when we're distracted behind the wheel, we become a danger to ourselves and others. If I were the head of the Draconian Laws Committee, I would move to institute those same laws for public places like the grocery store.


No phone calls while pushing your shopping cart. Or while requesting cold cuts at the deli. You might think you can multitask, but you're actually going through the motions much more slowly than you think while holding your phone and chatting. Even hands-free, you're mentally crossing items off your shopping list while relaying gossip to a friend or feigning participation in a conference call, and that slows you down. You are getting in people's way and creating disharmony in what should be a seamless ballet of fruits, frozen pizzas, and potato salad. Just call back later.

Keep your nasty hands far away from the food

You're gross. Reluctantly, I'll admit that I too am gross. I think we all embrace a hefty amount of denial when we shop for groceries, not fully engaging the dark thought of just how many random people have touched the very apple we'll soon be biting into.


But there are some places in the grocery store where you should never touch food directly with your hands: salad bars, self-serve soup stations, and bakery cases are all places where you need to use tongs or paper sleeves to keep your fingers separated from the goods. And at the deli counter, you'd best refrain from reaching for anything at all—let the employees handle it. The grocery store isn't a children's museum! Have some decorum, for the love of god.

Stay on task in the checkout line

If you haven't realized yet, I am a big fan of efficiency. I like to get in and get out, and when someone gets in my way, I will get peeved. Nowhere is this more frustrating than the checkout line at my local grocery store.


I've waited with gritted teeth as the customer in front of me smiles and tells me they need to run back and get something else, and would I mind watching their stuff in the meantime? Here's your reminder: If there is someone behind you in line, it is too late. You can keep your spot in line or keep shopping, but you can't do both.

Be smart about unloading your cart

Grocery baggers get a lot of grief. When they don't bag items properly, the food can become a Jenga tower of glass bottles, eggs, and produce, a mistake that is both messy and costly. But as the customer, you have a role to play here to make sure you don't end up with squished groceries. 


Try to unload items onto the conveyor belt in order of heaviest to lightest, or at least group items together by category if you can. And if you brought your own reusable bags, place those on the counter first so that the bagger has them by the time your groceries are scanned.

Watch where you’re pushing your cart

Shopping carts are unwieldy instruments. They are bottom-heavy, their wheels are squeaky or jammed, and they are made of unforgiving metal. Yet some adult humans make the decision every day to whip that cart around the store like it's an Alfa Romeo. Take it easy with that thing. Slow it down, and be sure to check for cross-traffic before you thrust your cart into an aisle intersection.


Let employees go home

One of the biggest headaches working in any service industry job is a customer who is preventing you from closing. You shouldn't be embarking on your bi-monthly grocery haul twenty minutes before the store closes. This applies at any establishment that opens and closes: If a restaurant closes in 15 minutes, you don't request a table for a full sit-down dinner. Try to stick to closing time so workers have a chance of getting home at a decent hour, will you?